A fire broke out in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris Monday, putting the more than 800-year-old Gothic structure — and the priceless artwork and relics housed within it — at risk.
The fire started around 6:30 pm local time and reportedly originated in the building’s roof. Nine hours later, Gabriel Plus, a spokesperson for the Paris fire service, confirmed the fire was “completely under control,” though it wasn’t fully extinguished until 9:45 am local time. Despite the speed of the fire and the fact that it took more than 12 hours to extinguish, Notre Dame remains structurally sound, and nearly all the priceless art inside it was rescued.
“All the works of art that were in the ‘treasures’ area of the cathedral have been saved,” Plus reportedly told Agence France-Presse. That includes one of the cathedral’s stained glass rose windows, the 8,000-pipe great organ that dates back to medieval times, and the crown of thorns that is believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion.
But the fate of other works of art — including Notre Dame itself, which is now missing two-thirds of its roof, leaving it exposed to the elements — is unclear, as is the effect the blaze will have on Paris’s tourism sector.
Around 11:40 pm local time on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral. Notre Dame, he reportedly said, is “our history, our literature, the epicenter of our life, the standard by which we measure our distances. It’s so many books, so many paintings. It’s the cathedral of every French person, even those who have never visited it.”
It’s also a massive tourist attraction.
Notre Dame is Paris’s most popular destination for tourists. In other words, it’s the biggest tourist attraction in one of the world’s biggest tourist cities. Before the fire broke out, it was open 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week. Approximately 30,000 people visit the cathedral each day, and nearly 13 million people visit each year. Some come for the stunning Gothic architecture; others make the trip to pray and view sacred items in the cathedral’s reliquary, including the crown of thorns. The cathedral has been free to enter, but visitors were required to pay a small fee to enter the crypt (€6, or just over $6) and the tower (€8.50, or just over $9).
Despite its status as a tourist attraction, Notre Dame was still a fully operational Catholic church. As such, it’s financially maintained by the Archdiocese of Paris, which was tasked with raising funds for the restoration that was ongoing when the fire began.
According to the New York Times, the fire broke out “as the last rush of tourists were trying to get in for the day.”
“People were evacuated, they were streaming out of the cathedral and there was ash and cylinders coming down nearby,” Jim Rogers, an American tourist who was on the scene, told the Telegraph.
Of course, the rebuilding effort isn’t just about preserving France’s tourism economy — it’s about preserving an irreplaceable monument that has become a symbol of French national identity.
Some of the wealthiest people in France, including the Pinault family, who control the luxury conglomerate Kering that owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and Bernard Arnault, the CEO of the LVMH Group, have pledged hundreds of millions to rebuild the cathedral. (It’s worth noting that the Pinaults have reportedly asked for a 90 percent tax deduction on their contribution.) An architectural historian left behind an arguably even greater donation: in 2010, Andrew Tallon, a professor at Vassar, used a 3D scanner to document every piece of Notre Dame, creating what the Atlantic called an “unmatched record of the reality of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring buildings.” Tallon, who died of brain cancer in 2018, left behind a blueprint that can be used to aid the reconstruction effort.
The question, then, isn’t whether Notre Dame will be rebuilt, but how quickly the reconstruction can feasibly happen. As others have pointed out, the cathedral has been destroyed and restored before, though not quite to this extent. Laurent Ferri, curator of the pre-1800 collections in the Rare Division and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University, told Time that the fire may be the worst disaster the cathedral has experienced since the French Revolution. “It’s not just a building, but a place that is extremely important in terms of collective memory and identity,” Ferri said.
Some parts of the structure that were destroyed in the fire, like the cathedral’s roof, which was made of 5,000 oak trees, date back to its original construction. Others, like the spire, have been renovated before. “We mourn this section of the soaring spire, but when [Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, a French architect who restored the cathedral after it was damaged during the French Revolution] added it to the existing cathedral it was a very controversial decision,” Ferri told Time. “It would be not just a restoration but an alteration of the medieval cathedral if most of what [he] added is destroyed.”
As the fire raged on Monday, thousands mourned the loss of the spire and worried about what would happen to the rest of the building. In Paris, a crowd gathered near the cathedral to sing hymns while firefighters put out the blaze. Online, a diverse array of people, ranging from historians to devout Catholics to everyday tourists, discussed what the cathedral meant to them.
Notre Dame will be closed for an indeterminate amount of time until the reconstruction, which could be a lengthy, expensive process, is completed. But if history suggests anything, it’s that both this landmark and Paris’s status as a place that much of the world wants to visit will endure.
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